Federal Authorities Have Downplayed White Supremacist Violence for Too Long

According to The New York Times, white extremist shooters have now killed at least 63 people in the United States over the past 18 months. Late last month, FBI Director Christopher Wray told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that crime driven by racism and white supremacy was on the rise compared to the past nine months. But former FBI agents say there is reluctance within the agency to tackle white nationalist violence in part due to President Trump’s rhetoric. We speak with Mike German, fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law. From 1988 to 2004, German served as an FBI agent specializing in domestic counterterrorism.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue to discuss the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, where an anti-immigrant white supremacist gunman shot dead 20 people, mostly Latinos, in a crowded Walmart. According to The New York Times, white extremist shooters have now killed at least 63 people in the United States over the past 18 months. Last month, FBI Director Christopher Wray told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that crime driven by racism and white supremacy is on the rise compared to the previous year and that his agency recorded around a hundred arrests for domestic terrorism in the past nine months.

CHRISTOPHER WRAY: A majority of the domestic terrorism cases that we have investigated are motivated by some version of what you might call white supremacist violence.

AMY GOODMAN: But former FBI agents say there’s reluctance within the agency to tackle white nationalist violence, in part due to President Trump’s rhetoric. Former FBI supervisor Dave Gomez told The Washington Post, quote, “There’s some reluctance among agents to bring forth an investigation that targets what the president perceives as his base. It’s a no-win situation for the FBI agent or supervisor,” he said.

Joining us now is Mike German, fellow at Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School. He’s a co-author of the forthcoming book, Disrupt, Discredit and Divide: How the New FBI Damages Democracy. From 1988 to 2004, Mike German served as an FBI agent specializing in domestic counterterrorism.

So, we have this weekend of horror, from El Paso to Dayton. We don’t know exactly the motives of the Dayton shooter at this point, killed nine people, mainly African-American. He also killed his sister in that mass slaughter. We do know, however, what’s being attributed — a manifesto — to the El Paso shooter, who is in custody and apparently talking to the authorities, when he went into one of the most Latino Walmarts in America and just started shooting. Can you respond to what’s taken place and talk about the words the president does not want to use — “white supremacy,” “white nationalism” — and how that affects investigations in this country?

MIKE GERMAN: So, President Trump, from the time he was first announcing his candidacy, was using very divisive rhetoric that fit very well into the white nationalist ideology and identifying the targets that were the “them” that we needed to protect us from. And those tend to be immigrant communities. And I think that gave white nationalists a bit of comfort that their ideas had permeated into the mainstream. And we saw a lot of these white nationalists become part of the mainstream conversation, when mainstream media started interviewing them about the candidacy of Donald Trump.

So, unfortunately, as we’ve seen the violence increase from these public rallies and riots, we haven’t seen a law enforcement response that would dissuade this kind of violence, so there’s this idea that the violence is sanctioned. And that’s when it becomes very dangerous, when these white supremacist groups believe that the government actually approves of their conduct and is encouraging them to act. And that’s what I think is very dangerous right now. And, unfortunately, the federal government has not reacted in a way to dissuade this kind of violence.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, like the day before Mueller testified, all the attention on Mueller, Christopher Wray testified before the Senate, and he raised this issue of domestic terrorism, of white supremacy. He’s a Trump pick here for head of the FBI. That got very little attention. So, what does the government understand, that it’s not investigating? What reports have been suppressed around the rise of white supremacy domestic terrorism?

MIKE GERMAN: So, I appreciated Director Wray’s statements that white supremacy presents a persistent threat in the United States. But, unfortunately, their policies have actually masked how they use their domestic terrorism resources to make it harder for the Congress to understand how many of those resources are going toward white supremacist violence. Senator Durbin, back in 2017, introduced a bill, the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act, that would have required the FBI to document how many incidents and fatalities were a result of each type of, each category of domestic terrorism in the domestic terrorism program, and then how many investigations and prosecutions occurred in each category, which I believe would have shown disproportionate investigations against groups that were not nearly as violent as white supremacists. Instead of producing that data, what the FBIdid was change the way they collect the data. So, they grouped anarchists with anti-government militias under a category of anti-government. They grouped what had been a white supremacist category with what they had previously called black identity extremists, so that it would be harder to discern how many — whether appropriate resources are going to where there are actually violent acts attributable to these groups.

So, this is a problem that’s long-standing. The Justice Department, as a matter of policy and practice, has deprioritized the investigation of white supremacists. And we talk about a rise in white supremacist violence, but the truth is, we don’t know whether there’s a rise, because nobody actually accounts for this violence. The federal government today doesn’t know how many white supremacists kill people each year. And they haven’t been keeping these records even as counterterrorism became its number one priority.

So, what they need to do is change these policies. Recently, some former and current Justice Department officials have been arguing that they need new laws, that there aren’t sufficient laws. Well, I worked these cases in the 1990s, and nobody suggested we didn’t have enough law. In fact, there are plenty of laws. And we wrote a report at the Brennan Center last year, “Wrong Priorities on Fighting Terrorism,” to show the scope of the laws, not just 52 terrorism laws that apply to domestic terrorism, but five federal hate crime statutes addressing the kind of crimes that white supremacists often commit, organized crime statutes that would prevent the organized groups that act violently and persist because their members can replace one another, and also other conspiracy statutes. So, there are plenty of laws. It’s a matter of policy.

And as a matter of policy, the Justice Department takes hate crimes and defers them to state and local prosecution. And only 12% of police departments across the country even report hate crimes. So we know that the state and locals aren’t responding to this appropriately, yet the federal government just defers to them.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking to Fox News, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick ordered the anti-fascist, anti-racist movement antifa to stay out of Texas following Saturday’s mass shooting at the El Paso Walmart.

LT. GOV. DAN PATRICK: You know, I was looking at a story recently, I just saw over the last couple of days, where antifa is posting, you know, they want to come to El Paso and do a 10-day siege. Clear message to antifa: Stay out of El Paso. Stay out of Texas, basically. But we don’t need them coming in on September 1st. We didn’t need them to begin with, before this happened. But I would say to antifa, “Scratch Texas off your map, and don’t come in.”

AMY GOODMAN: So, I mean, here, the lieutenant governor of Texas is being asked about the alleged gunman, and he targets antifa. President Trump has also targeted antifa. He recently said the anti-fascist movement should be considered a terrorist organization. Mike German, can you respond?

MIKE GERMAN: Yeah, it’s troubling, because this is bubbling up from these far-right, white supremacist websites into the mainstream, not just in the media but now from government officials. So, it’s quite troubling that there’s this distraction, right? The antifa, the anti-fascists, anti-racist groups, there are no fatalities in the United States resulting from these groups, for at least a couple of decades. So, why we’re even talking about that in a counterterrorism context, when you have groups that are killing people, and we’re not responding to those groups in a way that’s comprehensive and helps us really understand the problem so we can address it more properly?

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, today — I mean, this is all so horrifying. I think El Paso and Dayton were something like the 250th and 251st mass shootings this year. Then, going back years, I mean, just today, August 5th, is the seventh anniversary of the Oak Creek mass shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in which six Sikhs were killed.

MIKE GERMAN: Absolutely. And it’s troubling because they’ve had this tacit support from the government. They’ve had this laxity in law enforcement following up from when they commit public violence, that I believe they’ve been able to recruit in a way that wasn’t possible in the 1990s, when I worked this, this issue. So, I’m concerned that, typically, if you look through history, you tend to see a lot more political violence around elections, and because they’ve had this space to recruit and this tacit support from the government, that they can become much more dangerous. And unless the government starts responding very differently very soon, I’m afraid that we’re only going to see more of this.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us, Mike German, fellow at Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, author of the forthcoming book, Disrupt, Discredit and Divide: How the New FBI Damages Democracy. And on that issue of this being the seventh anniversary of the Sikh temple massacre, in which six people were killed, the shooter was a white supremacist and veteran. He died by suicide that day.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, what are the Democrats afraid of, as the NRA, the National Rifle Association, implodes? Stay with us.

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AMY GOODMAN: “Save Me,” by Connecticut high school student Tyler Jenkins, written as part of the March for Our Lives student movement against gun violence.